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Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, Statue of a Girl of Peace, 2011. Photo: Kyodo News.

Artists Decry Censorship of Aichi Triennale, Demand Removal of Their Works

Tania Bruguera, Javier Téllez, and Pia Camil are among the artists who have signed an open letter condemning the closure of “After Freedom of Expression?,” a special exhibition that was organized as part of the 2019 Aichi Triennale in Japan, and are demanding that their works be removed until the exhibition is reopened. Staged at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, the show, which addresses the history of censorship in Japan, was shuttered on August 3 after the institution received several threats over the inclusion of a “comfort woman” sculpture. The work, titled Statue of a Girl of Peace, commemorates the Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops during World War II.

While organizers cited safety concerns as the reason for shutting down the exhibition—the authorities have since detained a man suspected of threatening to set fire to the museum—the artists are calling the move an “unacceptable act of censorship.” The controversy surrounding the sculpture, which was produced by South Korean artists Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung, comes at a time when tensions between Japan and South Korea are escalating. The history of “comfort women” remains a sensitive subject for Japan, which only issued an official apology for the first time in 2015 as part of a deal Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and former South Korean president Park Geun Hye made in 2015. The exhibition also prompted pushback from politicians, including chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, who called for a reassessment of the government’s funding of the event.

The letter reads: “We believe that the Aichi Triennale organizers’ decision to surrender to irrational threats and political demands violates freedom of expression and we question their decision to close the section ‘After Freedom of Expression?’ without previously discussing it with the participating artists, the other curators and the organizers of the special exhibition. We fundamentally disagree that this is an issue of ‘risk management’ and not one of censorship, a fact that has been denounced publicly by Amnesty International Japan, AICA Japan, PEN international as well as local and international press.”

In solidarity with the artists whose works were part of the shuttered exhibition, the letter’s signees are withdrawing their own contributions to the triennial. “Through this action we sincerely hope that the organizers of the Aichi Triennale will re-open the section ‘After Freedom of Expression?’ and continue with their valuable work without thwarting freedom of expression by giving way to political intervention and violence.”

The open letter is published in full below:

IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

We, the undersigned artists participating in the Aichi Triennale (2019), condemn the decision to close a full section of the exhibition as an unacceptable act of censorship. The section titled “After Freedom of Expression?”, a special project of the Aichi Triennale, was closed indefinitely to the public on August 3rd due to political pressure from the State as well as pressure from anonymous sources threatening to take violent and terrorist actions unless the works in question were removed from the exhibition.

As we expressed publicly in a previous letter, we repudiate these threats inciting violence against the staff of the triennale and the censored art works. However, while we believe that all precautions must be taken to ensure the mental and physical safety of the exhibition staff and the visitors of the Triennale, we insist that “After Freedom of Expression?” should be opened and remain on view until the scheduled closing of the exhibition.

The main target of the attack in this case is the work “Statue of a Girl of Peace”, by Kim Seo-kyung and Kim Eun-sung: a sculpture that attempts to repair historical memory focusing on Japan’s military sexual slavery (euphemistically called “comfort women”) a historical issue that is continuously repressed in Japan. We consider it an ethical obligation to stand by the exhibiting artists’ voices and their work being exhibited. Freedom of expression is an unalienable right that needs to be defended independently of any context.

The attacks on freedom include: (1) Nagoya mayor Takashi Kawamura’s unfortunate comments calling for the permanent closure of “After Freedom of Expression?”; (2) a statement made by Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, threatening to cut off future funding to the Triennale through the national Agency for Cultural Affairs; (3) numerous anonymous calls harassing the exhibition staff; (4) a fax threatening terrorist action unless the section be closed.

We believe that the Aichi Triennale organizers’ decision to surrender to irrational threats and political demands violates freedom of expression and we question their decision to close the section “After Freedom of Expression?” without previously discussing it with the participating artists, the other curators and the organizers of the special exhibition. We fundamentally disagree that this is an issue of “risk management” and not one of censorship, a fact that has been denounced publicly by Amnesty International Japan, AICA Japan, PEN international as well as local and international press.

As a cultural institution, it is the Aichi Triennale’s responsibility to stand by the rights of its exhibiting artists and to protect freedom of expression. We understand that it is not an easy decision to make when people’s lives and security are at stake. But as a public institution, it is also its responsibility to work in collaboration with the corresponding authorities to provide protection and security for its staff, visiting public and anyone involved in the exhibition. It is the authority’s responsibility to undertake a serious and formal investigation as would be standard in the case of any terrorist threat. All these measures should have been taken into account before closing down a section of the exhibition.

In no way do we want to implicate the staff of the Aichi Triennale and its exhibition spaces with whom we have had a mutually supportive and positive relationship. We thank them for their hard work and stand by them through this difficult time. However, more than a week has passed since “After Freedom of Expression?” was censored. During this time, the organizers have been compliant in organizing an open discussion with the artists and we have insisted on the importance of reopening the exhibition. Also, at least two people have been detained in connection to the terrorist threats. However, we have not been given any clarity as to whether the censored section will be reopened.

Therefore, as a public gesture of solidarity with the censored artists, we demand that the organizers temporarily suspend the exhibition of our artworks in the Triennale while “After Freedom of Expression?” remains closed to the public.

Through this action we sincerely hope that the organizers of the Aichi Triennale will re-open the section “After Freedom of Expression?” and continue with their valuable work without thwarting freedom of expression by giving way to political intervention and violence.

Freedom of expression matters.

Tania Bruguera

Javier Téllez

Regina José Galindo

Mónica Mayer

Pia Camil

Claudia Martínez Garay

Minouk Lim

[Update: August 15, 10:00 AM] The following artists have since added their names to the open letter:

Reynier Leyva

Novo Park

Chan-kyong

Pedro Reyes

Dora García

[Update: August 26, 12:00PM]

Koki Tanaka 

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